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Crisis, Literature and the Contemporary


Admission requirements

No extra admission requirements


The term ‘crisis’ dominates current public rhetoric. From the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, through the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and up to the ongoing refugee crisis, citizens in Europe and elsewhere in the world feel that they live in a perpetual state of crisis or emergency. The framework of crisis resonates in various rearrangements in the Western political landscape: the rhetoric of fear of others (terrorists, Muslim fundamentalists, migrants, refugees), the popularity of anti-immigrant populist parties, the renewed rise of nationalism and of nostalgic restorative projects in a time of waning nation-state sovereignty, and the growing polarization between the European North and South.
The climate of crisis can be associated with several eruptions of violence, xenophobic attitudes or grim diagnoses of the present in terms of (Western) ‘imperial’ decline and imminent barbarian invasions. But this landscape of crisis has also given rise to new forms of activism, protest cultures, and attempts to rethink the future, devise alternative worldviews, and initiate global change. Many of these attempts take shape in literature and art, which are called upon to provide alternative imaginative structures to conceive the present and the future.
In this course, we will scrutinize the concept of crisis, its history, and the implications of its uses today. We will chart various manifestations of crisis – the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the environmental crisis, terrorism etc. – and theoretical responses to the contemporary crisis-rhetoric by critics and philosophers including Giorgio Agamben, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, David Graeber, and Chantal Mouffe. How is the framework of crisis produced? How does crisis become an object of knowledge about history and the present? Which discursive structures and figures of the other does crisis-rhetoric hinge on? What notions of temporality or conceptions of historical time are produced through the experience of crisis? Can we devise alternative grammars or vocabularies to talk about the above phenomena as scholars in the Humanities?
At the same time, we will delve into the function of literature in times of crisis. How does contemporary literature respond to ‘crisis’ in its various manifestations? How do literary works imagine literature's relation to our realities and how do they respond to fears, desires, and anxieties that emerge in the context of the crisis? To tackle these questions, we will discuss novels (e.g., by J.M. Coetzee and Michel Houellebecq), short stories (e.g. by Margaret Atwood and Christos Ikonomou), poetry, but also graffiti art and films that articulate complex responses to crisis or alternative visions of the present and the future.

Course objectives

Students who follow this course will:

  • gain in-depth knowledge of uses of the concept ‘crisis’ in various fields (social, cultural, political, philosophical);

  • be trained in probing the functions and effects of the crisis-rhetoric and acquire insight into various theoretical approaches that examine, question or oppose the idea of a perennial crisis;

  • acquaint themselves with theoretical texts and literary works that propose alternative frameworks, vocabularies, and notions of subjectivity in a context of crisis;

  • gain insight into current debates on the function of literature in crisis-times and acquaint themselves with literary works and other cultural objects that respond to the idea of crisis


See Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

Total course load is 280 hours:

  • Lectures: 42 hours

  • Class preparations (readings): 148

  • Assessment (presentations, final paper): 90

Assessment method

  • Class presentations and contributions to blackboard discussions

  • Final paper

Active participation in class, written contributions to discussions on blackboard, and presentations in class (as listed under 1) will not be graded but are requisite to complete the course. The final mark for the course is established by the grade of the final paper. Should the final paper yield an insufficient grade, the student will be offered an opportunity for revising it.


Via Blackboard.

Reading list

The reading list will be made available on Blackboard.


Via uSis.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Contact information

Instructor: Prof. dr. Maria Boletsi or L. van Kessel MA

Please contact Student administration van Eyckhof

Coordinator of studies: Mr. J. Donkers, MA.